“Not Enough” (And Other Lies of the Unsupervised Brain)

Like many of you, I grew up with my own story of “not enough”. As a kid, I struggled hard in school. Homework was an all-evening, all-out battle.

The night habitually ended with my head on the kitchen table, whining “this is so stupid!”, which would alert my mother that all learning had ceased for the day and it was time for bed. My agony was rewarded with judgemental letters on my report card (usually followed by a minus), and tangible gifts from my parents to ensure I didn’t ditch hope or motivation to “just keep trying”. My first guinea pig was a bonus payout after a long summer spent conquering my multiplication tables. (For the record, I still believe math is stupid, but I’ve gotten better at it over the years.)   This continued through high school and into my freshman year of college, when I called my parents to say, “I’m coming home. I’m just not smart enough for this. It’s not for me.” Because I believed these unchallenged thoughts, I dropped out and settled into a procession of jobs that kept me bored and unfulfilled.   All those years of struggle did something within me. They solidified a story of “I’m not smart enough”, which morphed into many versions of “not enough”. (Same book; different chapter!) This would eventually change from a thought that I held to a thought that held me. It silenced my voice and kept me from taking risks because I truly believed I wasn’t capable of fulfilling my God-given dreams. A belief is just something we’ve thought so many times that it’s become hard-wired into our brain and accepted as “fact”. It’s like a well-driven path that becomes easy to drive on. We can do it almost on autopilot. The brain is always looking for evidence of what it already believes, and when it comes to beliefs about the self, thoughts can become a bit like a carnival mirror that shows a very warped image of who we are. Eventually, we stop testing them because we think we can trust the “evidence” we see.   Fast forward a decade and several God-instances later to the day I was forced to face these fears and lies that were keeping me quiet and still. The unexpected outsourcing of the job I held meant I could return to college to pursue the dream I’d left behind. I had plenty of time on my hands while our kids were in school. I lived only 40 minutes from campus. My husband was in full support. There was just one problem though. Remember?  I wasn’t college material! I wasn’t smart enough and college wasn’t for me. If it weren’t for the overwhelming evidence of divine intervention, I would have wimped out. But the second chance at chasing my dream had me wondering…What if?   So, I went; all along telling myself I wouldn’t have anything positive to contribute to the class discussions (until I did), I couldn’t get an A (until I did), I couldn’t make the dean’s list (until I did).  Next came the suggestion of pursuing my master’s degree. Me?! People like me don’t make it into grad school! Until I did. And on it went. I became a licensed clinical therapist and opened a private practice. At some point I had to wonder: Is this true? Am I really not smart? How could I do all these things if I wasn’t capable of them?  

At some point we have to fact-check our thoughts.  Is this true? What does the evidence show? Could it be a lie that keeps me in playing small? You’d think the clouds would have parted at some point in all this, and my new “awakening” would mean permanent freedom. But neuroscience shows this is not how the human brain works. Sure, I’ve gained confidence as a result of overcoming barriers. But the brain is a trickster whose negativity has kept us alive for centuries. If it can’t sell you its story to keep you safe in the cave, it will move onto a more convincing chapter. Therapists call this “imposter syndrome”.  As in “Who do you think you are? Eventually someone will realize you’re not equipped for this.”  Even now, I still have regular thoughts like: “What could I possibly add to the conversation?” “If I know this, everyone else must too.” and “I’ll be an expert when….”   Here’s the thing though. This isn’t my first rodeo. This bull may have kicked the snot out of me enough times to make me gun-shy, but I’ve also learned a thing or two along the way. I no longer blindly accept my thoughts as truth. I’ve come to accept that whenever I take a risk toward completing the work I was created for (what Brené Brown calls “stepping into the ring”), I will inevitably hear the voice of “not enough”. But now instead of entertaining the thought I say, “Duly noted” and I continue with my work.   What thought have you been allowing to run rogue? What thought keeps you from pursuing a dream? My guess is that you know it well, but I want to invite you into a new relationship with it. Learn to view it as an annoying carpooler. Stop trying to fight or outrun it. It’s planning to ride with you today regardless of whether it’s been invited. But that doesn’t mean you have to engage with it. After all, you’re the one in the driver’s seat. When it knocks on your passenger window, just raise an eyebrow say “Ah, there you are. I was wondering when you’d show up.”   Then point to the backseat, tell it to shut up & sit down. And then drive!

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